How to Travel on European Trains

I don’t mean “Should I buy a Eurail Pass?” or “How to Read Timetables” - you’ve got that. Really, you do. I mean (I meeeeaaaan) “How to Physically Ride Trains in Europe.”  How to catch the train. How to get yourself and your luggage off the train.  You know, the important stuff.

Here’s what it boils down to, folks:  Pay attention.

I promise you. This “Just Pay Attention, for Crissakes!” notion really does work.

No one let us in on this secret, though.  As all good lessons go, we had to figure this one out for ourselves. 

The little piece of paper, taped over the “Push to stop the train” light, indicated … confusion. A cartoon of pigs on a train track? German words iTranslate didn’t understand? Hmmm.

The little piece of paper, taped over the “Push to stop the train” light, indicated … confusion. A cartoon of pigs on a train track? German words iTranslate didn’t understand? Hmmm.

It’s 10:00 p.m. in Austria. Day one of 22. Having left Toronto sometime yesterday, our bodies believe it’s late afternoon and we’ve just pulled a wicked all-nighter.  We’re exhausted; we’re overwhelmed. We maybe shouldn’t have had those beer at lunch. But we’ve successfully caught and ridden three trains so far today, and - besides some confusion at one stop where I repeatedly asked passengers rushing to board a train, “HOW DO YOU KNOW WHERE THIS TRAIN IS GOING?!”*, we’re feeling pretty confident.

*I’ll answer this question in a bit.  Promise.

Our conductor has conveniently left a detailed rail schedule in our compartment, and we’re watching, listening, planning, waiting for our stop. The last stop of the day, where our friends await our arrival.  Soon we will sleep. Oh, heavenly sleep. A full five minutes before we’re due to arrive, we gather our bags. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Wait, how many backpacks do you have? I need to count again. One, two, three …

Sometimes the Internet is wrong. A helpful forum user told me this station had lockers. It did not.

Sometimes the Internet is wrong. A helpful forum user told me this station had lockers. It did not.

We walk to the end of the car.  We’re so ready. We even keep quiet in the corridor, having received disapproving stares for not doing so on the last train.

The train slows.  The train stops. The door doesn’t open.  What? The door automatically opened on our last three trains.  What gives? Is there a button or something?

Oh, here’s one. A big, green illuminated button with two outward-pointing arrows.  Clearly, this button will open our door. So we push the big green button. Nothing.

We see no signage on the door, nothing to indicate another method of opening.  (We do note a large, red crank, but it appears to be some sort of emergency handle, as it’s quite similar to those on airplane emergency exits.)  Obviously this door isn’t functioning. We clambour over one another to push the green button at the opposite door. Nothing.

We sprint to the other end of the car.  All five of us and our nine (nine, still, right?) bags.  Frantic green-button-pushing commences. Green-button-repeated-slamming follows.  We’re crying out now. What if we can’t open the door? What if the train …

The train leaves the station.  

Fraught with panic and close to tears, I sprint down the now-moving train, searching for … help?  I’m at a loss as to what form this help will present itself, but please. Someone. I find the conductor.  Who glances my way, assures me we can depart at the next station, a mere 20 minutes away, and a train going back the opposite direction will depart (he checks the timetable) in just two hours.

Which puts us at our destination, I don’t know, math is fuzzy at this hour, around 2:00 a.m.?  Which is what time back home? And what the … 

I give up and call my friend.  Who is some sort of saint, and insists upon picking us up at the next station.  Canonize this woman.

But still.  We do need to physically depart the train at this next stop.  So we find a helpful fellow in the bar car - a helpful fellow who takes great joy in our plight, which brings us around to doing the same.  It really is pretty damn funny. We wish we had time to share a round with him. There’s a bit of a language barrier, but we understand one another: The crank. The big, red crank was not an emergency exit.  It was the plain ol’ exit handle. You push the button, then turn the crank, and finally push the door open. Oh!

Before you judge us, please take into account jet lag. And sheer stupidity.

Before you judge us, please take into account jet lag. And sheer stupidity.

He misunderstands a bit, and believes our problem had to do with pushing the green button too early, before the engineer released the doors.  But, no matter, he’s departing at the same station, and is happy to open the door for us. So he does (well, the random guy in front of him does), giggling at us all the while.

We de-train.  We find our friends.  We hug. We laugh at ourselves.  We eventually sleep.

We spend the next 10 train rides obsessively testing ourselves on proper door-opening procedures - which are different on every damn train.

Over the next three weeks, we successfully navigated our way through three countries and multiple rail companies - a total of 40 or more trains.  Each line seemed to bring a new challenge - on this one our Eurail passes weren’t valid (it’s okay, just purchase tickets from the conductor); on that one, a traveller came aboard, yelled a command in German, after which the entire car stood and departed (passenger in front of us translated - we needed to switch trains); one train never showed, leaving us stranded in a lonesome valley (a quick phone call explained the track was closed - but the bus stop was close by).  

But this story is about a lesson.  About paying attention.  

These children grew even closer than before on this trip, and the Glacier Express was no exception. More on that another time.

Had we simply turned around when we stepped onto that red-handled train, we would have noted the door.  The handle. The method. We could have watched, and learned, as other passengers departed. On the train in which the conductor gently nudged us and whispered, “You know you need to request a stop on this train, right?” we would have answered, “Yes, of course!” had we been watching, had we been paying attention as other passengers requested their stop and departed.  (Don’t worry; she made this revelation before our stop.)

Had I paid attention to the lighted signs on our first day, I would have noted that - although all trains were significantly delayed and therefore the timetable was worthless, and although no train displayed any sort of indication of its destination - said lighted sign changed as each train passed, scrolling the next incoming train to the top of the list. 

Pay attention, folks.  Look around. What are other passengers doing?  What is changing in your surroundings? Where are they placing their luggage?  Their trash? Did you inadvertently enter a quiet car? Is your seat marked reserved for someone else? Is this a first-class car?  

It took us an entire trip, really, but we did figure it out.  Mostly. When the accordion player serenaded us on the U-Bahn, not one passenger - not a single person in the overstuffed car - looked in his direction.  I noted their lack of glance; I swear I tried so hard to replicate it. But it was so beautiful. I looked. I pointed my camera at the guy. And, when the song was complete, who did he approach first with his cup?  Silly tourist.